The EpiCentre, at Haverhill Research Park is home to a lot of innovative and ground-breaking work - and it is now one year-old
Ambition, growth, flexibility and potential (the fulfilment of) are all words that immediately jump out at you when you visit the EpiCentre and speak to those who run it and the business people who are based there.
The centre, managed by Oxford Innovation and built by Jaynic as part of the Haverhill Research Park development, opened in the first week of November 2020, so is now officially one-year-old.
It is part of Oxford Innovation’s group of 27 centres around the UK and is managed on a day-to-day basis by Kelly Boosey.
All 27 centres share the ethos of building local eco-systems and supporting growth through expansion and employment, according to Babita Devi, the EpiCentre’s innovation director.
Babita described the key facets of the EpiCentre, which is now home to 17 companies.
“The EpiCentre is an innovation hub – facilitating and bringing together like-minded individuals to create an environment for rapid growth and acceleration,” she said.
“Innovation hubs foster creativity by creating a culture of innovation – from the physical environment to being surrounded by the right people and getting the right business support.
“It is attracting a diverse client base, from CodiKoat which has developed the fastest ISO certified antimicrobial and antiviral coating, to Biotix which is creating a skin regeneration ingredient using modified microbes, and Amphista which is removing disease-causing proteins, to SKC Games Studio, which is establishing a new games cluster in Suffolk.”
The centre opened during the pandemic and was one of the first private sector centres to help roll out the vaccination programme which, in a strange way, gave local residents access to the building – and a chance to see how it looks – that they may well never have had in more normal times.
It is a four-storey building with lab facilities to support the life science sector on the ground floor.
SKC Games Studio, a Suffolk-based business whose director Asa Burrows is local to Haverhill, was one of its first customers, taking residence on the top floor.
Asa was looking to bring his team – now consisting of 10 people – together into one office instead of all working remotely in different locations.
The impact of the pandemic means that hasn’t quite worked out yet, with some of the team still working remotely, but he has plans to grow that would not have been possible had he not moved to the EpiCentre.
He said: “The reason why we moved in here is because we wanted to expand the team.
“Our plan next year is to increase that by 500 per cent.
“This place has been unbelievable. It’s been massive for us. It’s the best decision we have made even if the timing wasn’t perfect.
“The business support piece of the centre is just superb and the facilities are great too.”
Babita added: “As the innovation director, my role is to help support customers and the work that we are doing with SKC Games is to help establish the company as an AAA Games employer in the East of England. It would be the first one in the Eastern region outside of Cambridge.
“At the EpiCentre, they have access to my time and group resources to help improve their chance of success.
“I also am able to connect companies at the centre with a larger network, of Oxford Innovation’s 1,200 customers across the UK as well as provide support through strategic alliances we have built with similar centres across the East of England.
“Supporting SKC Games will need more than investment into building a game.
“It requires infrastructure and a whole eco-system in games design, production and delivery which we are ready to support.”
The work of CodiKoat – see page 3 for more details on its ground-breaking developments in the field of antiviral coatings – has also benefited from being based at the EpiCentre.
When the business moved into the building last November, Dr Matin Mohseni, one of its four founders, was the only scientist using one of the lab benches – now it has 15 scientists.
Matin said: “We moved into the EpiCentre last November and took one space in the beginning, but I was the only one in that lab.
“Now we have 15 scientists coming from Phds in material science, micro-biology and chemistry and we have expanded the team.
“We’ve got a couple of ex-professors from Cambridge University who have joined us full-time and that is something we are very proud of as well.
“There are two kinds of labs here.
“The small one has six benches in it so from January we will have all of those six benches.
“We are also renting probably the largest office in the building upstairs from January.”
Dr Reza Saberi Moghaddam, another of CodiKoat’s founders, hailed the flexibility of what can be done and what is on offer at the EpiCentre as one of its great assets.
He said: “We feel that the infrastructure here is good. The flexibility has helped us.
“There were lots of limitations of other places but here it has very good flexibility.
“We can come here and do testing whenever we want to.
“It is really good and much of the progress we could make in the early stages would not be done as quick in other places because they have limitations and lots of bureaucracy.”
“As if to prove his point about the flexible conditions on offer at the EpiCentre, Reza recalled how he was working in the labs conducting tests last Christmas Day.
Being just 35 minutes from the centre of Cambridge has also been another benefit to CodiKoat’s being in the EpiCentre, as Reza and Matin’s fellow co-founder, Raj Sharma, emphasised: “We are looking to expand and take on new local talent.
“That’s another advantage of being here, because Cambridge is up the road.
“We are looking to scale up to 100 staff by the end of 2022.”
There are many different types of businesses in the EpiCentre.
They include Pegasus Office Solutions, PBS Care, which offers at home care packages, InterSTEM Recruitment, specialising in talent attraction, recruitment, development and retention, Folgate Insurance Company and ATM Steel, one of the UKs leading steel installation companies.
The attractiveness of using the EpiCentre’s networking space or its flexible work stations is the in-house café, Cool Beans, which opened in September and serves Paddy & Scott’s coffee and is run by the Cambridge Catering Company.
Also in the building, having moved in 10 months ago, is artificial intelligence (AI) enabled skin microbiome company Biotix, which is identifying and testing new microbiome-based active principles, in essence working in the field of the regeneration of skins cells.
Davide Pennino, who travels from Oxford to the centre some days of the week to develop the R&D side of things, said: “We use AI to find new skin microbes.
“This is a technology for people that want younger-looking skin or because they have scar tissue or burns. Mostly skin problems.
“We are filing for patents but we will have more products next year.
“It was very hard to get lab space in Oxford, especially of this kind, where it is equipped.
“It (travelling from Oxford) is worth it. Compared to building an entire lab, it’s absolutely worthwhile and the contribution of Babita is great.”
He uses one lab bench himself and occasionally has been working with data analysts at the centre.
Biotix, whose parent company is based in Singapore, has developed the technology and is now looking to commercialise it, so is looking for partners to take that forward.
Sarah Howard MBE, the chair at the British Chamber of Commerce and a non-executive director of Jaynic, is also the co-owner of a Haverhill-based business.
She sees the EpiCentre as an asset to Haverhill:. “To have something like this here, where people, in the nicest possible way, will say this is something different for Haverhill, is a really good thing,” she said.
“”If you are bringing companies like this to Haverhill, it’s just elongating the Cambridge Corridor and CodiKoat are doing well at attracting scientists because they’ve got the quality of worker you get in Cambridge and the facilities you get in Cambridge, but it doesn’t cost as much for them to set up here as it does in Cambridge.
“My vision for it is that as we get more companies in we can get more involved with West Suffolk Council and the schools, so it’s more of a learning opportunity.
“I think that’s really good for the aspirations of the town.”
In terms of opening the EpiCentre in the midst of a global pandemic, Babita said: “We were really lucky. We definitely hit the ground running with customers and a large part of that was the lab facilities.
“During the pandemic they needed to carry on working, especially if you think about some of the customers we have got here, like CodiKoat, who are developing products that will help with the Covid pandemic.”
Having freezers on site also enabled the Pfizer Covid vaccine to be stored at the required temperature of minus 80 degrees, a capability that also played a huge part in the centre being chosen as a vaccination hub.
Babita said: “They were here for six months and that was fantastic because it allowed us to connect with the community.”